Lisbon-based film director Bruno de Almeida and Michael Imperioli have a long collaboration. After appearing in de Almeida’s debut feature On The Run, Imperioli went on to win an Emmy for The Sopranos and make his name as one of New York’s outstanding character actors, but all the while, the two have worked together on projects as far away from Imperioli’s Hollywood career as can be imagined. The latest is Cabaret Maxime, a daring independent drama, shot on location in Portugal, about a burlesque club’s escalating feud with its landlord amid rapid gentrification. Metrograph asked de Almeida and Imperioli to sit down together and chat about working together on the film.
Michael Imperioli: I was speaking to a journalist today who said Cabaret Maxime was a New York movie. I said, “Yeah, it's kind of a New York movie, except it was shot in Lisbon and it’s a Portuguese filmmaker, although he's kind of as much of a New Yorker as he is Portuguese. So it's kind of a hybrid.
Bruno de Almeida: The actors are mostly from New York, but it's a cross between, I would say, a New York movie and a European movie. We were also influenced by a lot of European films, so that kind of made sense. But that mix I like. There’s also the fact that we never explain where it takes place. We're not tying ourselves to reality, which I like. You're going into the world of a certain movie, and it doesn't really matter if it takes place here or there. I love seeing films like that. It could all be happening in the main character's mind.
Michael Imperioli: That was the theory I came up with during the shoot, at five in the morning when we were shooting at that fish market and I was delirious from staying up. Only the beginning and end is real. The whole movie is a fantasy in this lead character's mind, which you had not considered, but then you thought does kind of make sense.
Bruno de Almeida: It’s like The Wizard of Oz.
Michael Imperioli: Let's talk about the inception. We did our first movie together in 1997. Right after I shot the pilot of The Sopranos. We did a movie called On the Run.
Bruno de Almeida: It was sort of a 70’s-inspired buddy flick or almost like a road movie. It was one night in New York. It was fun. So that was ‘97 and then we did another film called The Lovebirds in 2007. Right? It’s about one movie every ten years. This idea of working in a group, I love it. Some of the filmmakers I admire also do that. Fassbinder did that. It's like having a community theater group, and you write for people that you know and you work with. It's very comfortable.
Michael Imperioli: This one, Cabaret Maxime, we started talking about in 2006. I was in Lisbon. I had done a movie directed by Paul Auster with Irène Jacob and David Thewlis, The Inner Life of Martin Frost. I think that was my first time in Portugal.
Bruno de Almeida: Yeah, we started talking about it. I had an idea for a story about a rock musician who was kind of down and out and who ended up in this neighborhood, which is where we ended up shooting. It was a red light district. I'd found that location and I thought about the story of a rock musician who would go there and ended up in a hotel. And it was all about meeting crazy characters that were totally free.
Michael Imperioli: It was about living on the edge of society.
Bruno de Almeida: It was like a rediscovery of the soul, so to speak. I was hanging out with my friend Manuel, who was a rock musician and a painter and an artist who took over this old place called Cabaret Maxime, which had been there since the 30s. It was a real authentic sort of a burlesque kind of a club. And he took it over and started mixing in old numbers, old strip tease numbers and burlesque numbers with rock and roll bands. I thought it was a great idea. And so that’s eventually where this film came from. And then you had a band called Dolce Vita.
Michael Imperioli: My band’s first gig in Lisbon was at Maxime’s. But the story of the musician never came together.
Bruno de Almeida: Several writers worked on the screenplay and I was kind of looking for the story. I mean I was trying to figure out what it was all about. This took a few years, and through this process, I was involved with the real Cabaret Maxime, and we went through this experience of having gotten kicked out of there by the landlord. There was a big gentrification in Lisbon and I ended up thinking, Well this is the story.Whatever we lived through those years ended up being the script. It turned out very close to the main theme of the other one. But it was more about the preservation of the soul of a place and the survival of love.
Michael Imperioli: The movie is very contained in a way. The main set is the club: the backstage area, the club itself, and the bar area with the customers. Then there's the house, which was shot in a different location, but where they live. So that the world is kind of a tight little small world. And the neighborhood. That's where we were and spending all our time. So it really had that feeling that we had moved into this world and we're occupying it during the shooting and rehearsal.
I was involved in this as a producer as well, so I did feel some responsibility for the film, which is who Benny is. He's taking on responsibilities for all these people. He's basically a father figure. He runs the club, he directs the numbers, he hires and fires people, and he pays the bills. They come to him with problems and he's got to solve everybody's problems, and he's always under a lot of pressure, but he loves it and he wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, which is what happens because people come and they want to take it over and make money, and that would mean that they would have to go, and it would have to be different, and he doesn't want that. He's willing to fight for that.
For me as an actor, it was really a magical time, because it was our world that we created. You don't get a lot of those opportunities. With the story and the characters and the script, you could go deep with it. There were layers: different relationships and psychological things that you could really mine for and discover as we rehearsed, and then as we shot, we would becoming up with an insight like, "Hey, what if this story exists in this guy's mind and just the first scene and the last scene are reality and everything else is like The Wizard of Oz? Like this dream-like state? A fantasy?" This only comes from when you really are living the project. I can do a lot of decent work as an actor on TV or in movies and be professional and be fulfilled and stuff like that, but every so often, you get the opportunity, and it's rare where it comes from a place that's much more personal.
Bruno De Almeida: Did you find personal things that are connected to your life that you put in the character? You are kind of like that. You kind of take care of everybody, you as Bruno, and you as Michael the person.
Michael Imperioli: I guess. Both as an artist and as a father. I am a father, I've raised kids and I have a lot of long friendships that I maintain, but also as an artist, I started producing theater when I was 22 here in Tribeca, here in this neighborhood. I like bringing the group together, as you do. You and I are very similar that way. We prefer to work that way.
Bruno de Almeida: That idea of letting go, of not knowing where we're going, for me, is very important, because if I'm doing a scene and the actors are performing, I don't even want to know what lines they’re saying. I don't have the script with me, so that makes me be more like an actor. If I have a scene in front of me and I'm trying to follow what's written, it's less spontaneous for me.